* * * *
He stood with his back to the fire, assuming a pose of authority in readiness to deal with these guests. Best to let them know right away that he was in charge. Unfortunately tonight, because of his wounded wrist and the sling, he couldn't stand with both hands behind his back, only one, but he made the best of it, head up and feet shoulder-width apart so that he might rock on his heels as required. Yes, that was better. Normal, was it not? As "normal" as he could be.
It had been his intention to let Parkes handle the matter of his unwanted guests, but she was nowhere to be found tonight, of course— practicing that typical feminine skill of vanishing at the most inopportune moment.
So he was left alone to handle his aunt when she swept into his study with her voice already raised to soprano pitch. "Well, Henry, I have arrived, no thanks to the state of the roads around here."
The damp and drooping Miss Hathaway followed close behind her. Harry drew a deep breath and was about to speak when Lady Bramley exclaimed, "Henry, what are you wearing? For goodness sake, put some clothes on."
But he had clothes on, didn't he? Yes. He looked down to be sure. Breeches, shirt. Not as tidy as it should be, however—
"You will remember my companion, perhaps," she added, too impatient to wait for Harry to adjust his garments. "This is Miss Georgiana Hathaway of the Particular Establishment for the Advantage of Respectable Ladies."
"How could I fail to remember?" he muttered, looking again at the young woman beside his aunt. She was, in fact, impossible to forget, although he had suffered a momentary confusion at seeing her suddenly appear outside his window. "The Wickedest Chit that ever breathed air."
Her eyes, he noted today, were fringed with such a preponderance of ebony lashes that they looked heavy. Centipedinous eye lashes, he mused, inventing the word on the spot, as was his tendency when nothing in existence suited.
His gaze swept left and slightly downward to take in the sight of his aunt's round face. "Madam?"
"Henry, tuck your shirt in and put on a jacket. We're going to eat dinner."
"Not hungry." He looked around the room again, wishing Parkes might reappear and manage the situation in her usual way. Where the devil was she? "You can't stay," he blurted. Deliberately not looking at the woman with all the eyelashes again, he finally remembered to rock on his heels as previously planned. Ah, that was better. He regained command over his own vessel, no matter how distracting this stowaway's eyelashes. "There's been a mistake, you see. I haven't anywhere suitable to put you. The house isn't equipped for females, we're infested with mice and the roof leaks like a colander. Sorry, but there it is."
Parkes abruptly whispered in his ear, "Surely your aunt can take your mother's old bedchamber— which is the least drafty and most comfortable for her health— and her companion can make use of your father's room in the east wing, until something else might be arranged. A fire can be lit in there now that Brown took that old nest out of the chimney. And it's got a pleasant view across the park. I daresay the young lady would like the sunrise when she wakes in the morning."
Suddenly Parkes wanted to be helpful? She certainly picked her moments. He glared over his shoulder. "Don't you have other duties to tend?"
She was all smiles. A very rare occurrence and indicative of mischief afoot. "Oh, it won't take long to air the beds and knock down a few cobwebs."
"Henry!" His aunt's voice drew his attention back to her again. "What's the matter with you? What are you looking at? Where are your manners?"
Did he ever have any manners? He couldn't remember.
But as he turned back to his guests, he noticed that a few drops of rainwater had fallen off Miss Hathaway and landed in fat splotches on his drawings, which were spread out across the floor. She was smudging the charcoal, he thought anxiously. Ten minutes after her arrival and his work was endangered already.
"Are you quite all right, Commander?" the young menace inquired.
"All right?" he sputtered. "Of course, I'm all right. Not that it's any of your damned business."
"I won't get in your way, sir. I am eager to learn under your aunt's tutelage and to make recompense for all the destruction I caused at her garden party. To make amends for anything I did to you also, of course, sir."
Anything she did to him? What had she done to him now? Harry ran a quick mental assessment of all his body parts and was relieved to find them intact. Stirring, in fact, with vigor.
"Your aunt intends to make me into a lady," she added, a slightly mischievous spark under her lashes. "I am not to slide down banisters anymore."
"Excellent," he muttered. "That should be a relief to gentlemen everywhere. The fewer flying backsides there are about the place the better."
"Henry, be polite," his aunt exclaimed. "We're here now, and we're staying for a month. Perhaps longer. Now that I see the state of the house, I have a better idea of all the work to be done. I shall send for some staff tomorrow. I suggest you acclimate yourself to the idea of ladies in the house. I know you haven't had one about for many years. But it's time, Henry."
He looked down at the wet footprints left by Miss Hathaway's walking boots. Then his perusal ascended slowly over her muslin frock, only to be delayed in its progress by her softly rounded bosom— never to be mentioned, of course— until his gaze fumbled its way upward to that dimple in her cheek. He found her lips pursed up like a tight rosebud. Her eyes squinted hard under those abundant lashes. Trying to puzzle him out, perhaps. He wished her luck with that.
She would not be the first to try and fail.
A drop of rainwater had fallen from her chin to her bosom and dampened the lace chemisette, making it stick to her skin, enticingly transparent. There was a tiny mole at the base of her throat, visible beneath the ivory lace. In the old days, folk used to call them witches marks, he thought darkly. Could that be why freckles were now considered an unforgiveable flaw?
Reaching for the mantle behind him with his left hand, he missed, knocking a small china figurine to the hearth rug. He ignored it and his fingers, fumbling blind, finally found the ledge they sought.
"Do as you wish then," he said tersely, back in control. "But you stay at your own risk and don't assume I'll change the way I do things just for the two of you."
Miss Hathaway still watched him quizzically, her eyes a warm chestnut shade with just a twinkle of bronze. Her broom-like lashes looked wet. Perhaps that was why he was drawn to staring at them. It was as if they'd been dusted with tiny crystals and each time she blinked the firelight was caught there, reflected in miniature prisms of rainwater.
Harry had begun to suffer the tickling of sweat under his clothes. It felt as if he was back on that tropical island, under the midday heat of a bright sun. Hooking a finger around his neck-cloth, which was already partly undone, he tugged it looser still.
"You are ill," his aunt declared. "You look hot, Henry." She stepped forward and tried to reach his forehead, but he slipped smartly aside and, having a good two feet on her in height, he escaped her questing hand. "You're breathing very hard."
"Breathing? How dare I breathe. I shall stop at once."
"And perspiring in a most uncivilized manner."
"I am perfectly well. I have an excellent constitution. I wouldn't be alive now if I didn't, would I? Breathing helps with that, perhaps you have not noticed."
Parkes coughed, once again interrupting. "We'll see to the rooms then, shall we?"
"If we must," he grunted.
"If we must what?" his aunt demanded.
"Good afternoon to you both. Please enjoy your dinner without me. As you see, I'm busy." He'd looked at Miss Hathaway and her dangerous eyelashes long enough, he decided. He wanted her out of his study, and himself out of this sticky shirt, as soon as possible. "Shoo."
With his good hand he flung the door open and waited for the unwanted guests to leave him in peace again. A welcome draft of cooling air swept in from the passage, and he felt his pulse ease to a steadier trot.
"Dear Henry." His aunt paused to pat his cheek on the way out. "Lovely to see you, as always. Now I am here and all will be well. I told you I'd bring my own entertainment, didn't I? But do let Brown give you a shave, won't you? There is something of the Norse pirate about your appearance and that will not do for a Thrasher. We're not rampaging, ravaging pagan raiders."
"Perhaps not now," he muttered darkly.
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(Picture - Young Lady in a Boat by James Tissot)